Backyard Playground Safety: How to Choose a Protective Surface Material

When it comes to safety, one of the most neglected features of backyard swing sets and playgrounds is the ground itself.  While something like 80% of public playgrounds have some type of shock-absorbing protective surfacing under playground equipment, only 9% of home backyard playgrounds do, according to a 2001 playground injury study performed by the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC). The study found that, of the approximately 50,000 injuries per year associated with home backyard playground equipment, 69% of the injuries were because of falls to a non-protective surface underneath the equipment.

The most frequently used backyard playground surface options are grass and dirt, but neither surface adequately protects children against serious injury due to falls, even falls that occur from 30 inches or less above the ground. Fractures of the arms and hands, and lacerations and contusions of the head and face are the most often reported injuries that result from a child falling from playground equipment to a non-protective playground surface such as grass or dirt, as reported by the CPSC.

The good news is that there are number of protective playground surface options for the backyard playground that will meet the need for playground safety. As you might expect, playground surface options range in cost from affordable to expensive, and each option has its own list advantages and disadvantages. The most affordable materials are loose-fill materials such as wood chips, play sand, pea gravel, and recycled rubber mulch.  Understanding some of the positive and negative qualities of loose-fill playground surface materials should give you a better idea of the most appropriate playground surface for your backyard playground.

In general, loose-fill playground surface materials are the most common choices for backyard playgrounds because they are affordable and easy to obtain from a local garden center or home improvement warehouse. Recycled rubber mulch can also be found in a variety of colors and sizes through internet suppliers.

Common Characteristics of Loose-Fill Playground Surface Materials


  • A retaining barrier of some kind is required to prevent the surface materials from becoming displaced due to active play or weather conditions.
  • Loose-fill materials should never be installed on top of hard surfaces like concrete or asphalt.
  • Good drainage beneath the protective surface is necessary.


  • The initial cost of installing a loose-fill playground surface under your backyard playground equipment is generally low because the materials are easy to find and are relatively inexpensive.


  • Over time, loose-fill materials can become compressed, thus decreasing their protective abilities.
    Recommended depths can be compromised when active play or windy conditions displace the loose-fill materials.
  • Debris such as broken glass, nails, and other sharp objects which can cause injury can be easily hidden by loose-fill materials.
  • Continuous maintenance is required to maintain proper depth and to remove debris. Maintenance can include raking, sifting, grading, and leveling.
  • Periodic renewal or replacement of loose-fill materials is necessary, which can be time consuming and costly. The exception to this is recycled rubber mulches — see below for more detail.

Recycled Rubber Mulch

The loose-fill surface material with the most overall advantages and fewest disadvantages is recycled rubber mulch.


  • Recycled rubber mulch does not generally need to be replaced or renewed each year. Many manufacturers claim that rubber mulch can last approximately 50 years without needing to be replaced. Check with recycled rubber mulch suppliers for any guarantees or warranties that may be available.
  • Rubber mulch tends to be cleaner and less likely than other loose-fill materials to produce dirty clothing, hands, and shoes during active play.
  • Does not cause scrapes, scratches, or splinters from falls.
  • Animals and insects are not attracted to rubber mulch.
  • Mold and fungus growth is not a problem.


  • Recycled rubber mulch may need to be raked periodically to maintain proper depths in high traffic areas.
  • Colors on recycled rubber mulch may fade over a period of time.

No protective playground surface of any type can prevent all injuries. All the same, installing a protective playground surface as the foundation for your backyard playground equipment is crucial for increasing playground safety. The most suitable playground surface for your needs is up to you, but whatever choice you make will be a significant step toward protecting the children who use your playground equipment from serious injuries due to falls to the surface.

In my next post on backyard playground safety, I will offer some important guidelines to follow as you construct and install your new backyard swing set.

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  1. Pingback: Backyard Playground Safety: Tips For Constructing Your New Swing Set « What's In YOUR Backyard?

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